Taking up the Mandarin challenge

Classrooms around the country rung with the sound of kids practicing Chinese phrases to mark New Zealand Chinese Language Week, which ran from 26 September to 2 October.

Watch Foundation staff reading some key Chinese phrases

New Zealand Chinese Language Week (NZCLW) was held for the first time in 2014 as a way of increasing New Zealanders’ knowledge of Chinese language and culture. Each year it has grown in popularity and is now an important part of many schools’ calendars.

Carolyn Richardson, who teaches Year 8 at Tauranga Intermediate School and is a Foundation education Champion, says learning a foreign language is a great way to expand students’ awareness of cultures outside of their own.

“Having the opportunity to engage with a foreign language as a student in Aotearoa can really broaden understanding of other cultures and how language is such a big part of identity,” she says.

“We are part of a global community and having an understanding of our diversity through language and culture is so important to nurture understanding and acceptance.”

Each year, NZCLW sets down the challenge of learning five Chinese phrases to encourage people to take the first step in learning the language.

This year the phrases were:

  •   你好 Nǐ hǎo: Hello
  •   我 叫 Wŏ jiào: I am/I’m called
  •   我 需要   Wǒ xū yào I need (something)
  •   谢谢 Xiè xie: Thank you
  •   不 客气 Bù kè qi: You’re welcome

 At Tauranga Intermediate, each day of NZCLW Year 8 students would read the phrase of the day over the school's intercom and a general knowledge question on Chinese language and culture, with prizes for the students who could answer first. 

The students also practiced the phrases in pairs, filmed each other saying them and submitted the clips as entries into NZCLW Five Days Five Phrases Challenge.

Schools also cooked dumplings, sung Chinese waiata, made lanterns, called class roles in Mandarin and read traditional Chinese stories.

Kids holding their paper lanterns

Making paper lanterns was one of the activities students at Waimairi School did to mark the week

To mark the week, NZCLW launched Daniel’s Matariki Feast, a picture book for young people told in English, te reo Māori and Chinese. The book is one of a series of tri-lingual stories NZCLW has published.

The Foundation delivered copies of Daniel’s Matariki Feast and last year’s story Ruru’s Hāngī as part of an NZCLW package sent out to members of the Foundation’s Champions programme – a network of educators who the Foundation supports to act as amplifiers and role models to ensure knowledge and understanding of Asia is valued in New Zealand schools.

Foundation Champion Adrienne Smith invited students from Rotorua Specialist School satellite class to join her Year 3 class at Western Heights Primary School for a reading of Ruru’s Hāngī.

“The kids enjoyed reading along, creating the sounds of the story as we read and saying ‘Shhh, don't tell Ruru!’ together,” she says. 

A students reads Ruru's Hāngī to younger students

A student at Te Mata School in Havelock North reads Ruru's Hāngī to a class of younger students

The Foundation’s director education Sean O’Connor says NZCLW is a fantastic way for getting Chinese, and the value of learning languages, on the radars of young people

“We know that a chance encounter with a language or culture can spark an interest that lasts a lifetime,” he says.

“We’re sure there will be students who first encountered Chinese language and culture during this year’s NZCLW who will go on to learn the language and be an invaluable part of New Zealand’s next generation of Asia-equipped Kiwis.”

The latest data for primary schools showed there were almost 64,000 New Zealand students at primary level getting at least some regular Mandarin language learning in 2017. 

However, anecdotal evidence suggests since Covid-19 put a hold on Mandarin Learning Assistants (MLAs) coming to New Zealand this number has dropped.

Director of the Confucius Institute at Victoria University of Wellington Adele Bryant says she can only speak for the central North Island and Wellington regions but believes there are very few schools at intermediate or primary level that the Confucius Institute works with that still have a Chinese programme, so she expects the number of students learning the language at primary school level has dropped.  

“This flows through to secondary schools and is one of the factors that is halting the steady growth in numbers up to 2020,” she says.

Students from Lucknow School students in Havelock North sitting on the floor practicing writing Chinese characters

Students from Lucknow School in Havelock North practice writing Chinese characters

At secondary level, 6368 students were studying Mandarin in 2020. Japanese is still the most popular Asian language taught in New Zealand secondary schools with some 12,000 students studying the language.

Sean says it’s important for New Zealand’s future engagement with Asia that these numbers increase – “For New Zealand to thrive in Asia, we really need young people who are confident and capable interacting with people from the region.

“Learning someone’s language not only makes communication easier but also opens doors to better cultural understanding.”